Siouxland Observer


Sunday, May 20, 2012

North Sioux City, the Military
Road and Whitestone Hill

Big R's,” a bar named after its proprietor, Mr. Reynolds, stood back from the old Military Road, which today gets much of its traffic as a thoroughfare on the way to state Highway 105.  But back in the day, it was a rocky, dirt trail going nowhere, which is pretty much the way it still is today.

The Dakota "headwaters" of this road, named for the military troops traveling to Fort Randall, began its run on the banks of the Big Sioux River.  Mostly used by the calvary, the road has a rich, if somewhat dubious military history.

Today, around a bend of the thoroughfare (about three city blocks from the bridge shown below), the Skyline Bar and Casino, an old way station on Highway 105, still reminds old timers when “Big R’s” was the first beer station across the Big Sioux River from the suburbs.  One suburb, Riverside, was a way station of sorts itself, and was once one of the hottest spots in Sioux City, Iowa.  Unfortunately, you had to be 21 to drink there.

To the thirsty (mostly young people), Big R’s offered a low alcoholic beer.  The drinking age was 18 in South Dakota, and the beer a 3.2 alcoholic beverage everyone knew tasted weak, especially by the pitcher.  But for most, the watered-down brew was just fine.  Bartenders sold the beer all over town in frosty pitchers and mugs.

In fact, back in the day, a young guy (of proper age, of course) could often find a drink.  Bars catering to the college crowd, and others, always checked IDs (and especially on the weekends); but with luck, a guy could always find a cold beer. 1

In the 1960s, young people from Sioux City, Vermillion and other environs partied a lot in North Sioux City, South Dakota.

Several of the bars are still there.  Even The Loft on the outskirts of town still stands.  It was once one of the hottest dance bars in town.  Young people came from all over to party there (it is now a Bingo Hall and Casino across from a hamburger place).

Big R’s is gone now too, its sawdust covered dance floor history.  But the Military Road has a history too, and the archives reveal its controversy.   

It’s easy to find reports of raids on underage drinkers in the wilds of old North Sioux City, but not so easy to find reports on the wilds of old day South (or North) Dakota. In the Dakota Territory, the Military Road stood ready for cavalrymen heading out to the frontier, and Big R’s cul-de-sac (minus the building, of course) most likely bivouacked hundreds of soldiers awaiting orders to chase Indians.

There were no bridges across the Big Sioux back then, and according to, it was nothing like the river seen in many places today.  "The old Sioux was a slow moving, picturesque river up to two hundred yards in width," the website said.

This photo of the Big Sioux River was taken by jessefsd, and captures its beauty well.  It can be seen at, and is published here in accordance with panoramio's community and sharing policy. The original is in color.

Just south of the Military Road in Riverside, Pacquette Avenue meanders like the old river itself.  Named after the boatman who ferried troops across the Big Sioux River, Pacquette himself made a lot of money when the troops crossed in 1863. 

In the archives at the University of South Dakota (USD), a scrapbook from a settler in the area recorded the angst that brought the soldiers back, where, according to one online source, Wikipedia, the earlier defeat of the Santee Sioux in the Dakota War of 1862, forced 4,000 Native Americans to flee Minnesota into Dakota Territory.

The gathering of soldiers at the Big Sioux, according to reports from 1863, became known as the “expedition,” which officially began when men and supplies crossed the river on Pacquette's ferry.  Its stated goals: to prevent the renewal of the 1862 war, promote white settlement in the eastern Dakotas and protect access to the Montana goldfields via the Missouri River.

Paul Pacquette got his license to run the ferry December 18, 1855, according to a clipping from the USD scrapbook, but business was slow.  By the spring of 1863, however, he was hosting 2,000 Cavalrymen gathering to cross the river. 

“Packet’s (sic) ferry boat across the Big Sioux is said to be the best craft of the kind in this country,” a blurb told readers in the 1863 Sioux City Register.  “He is just now reaping a rich harvest.”

But out on the plains, the people weren’t so happy.  Indian warriors were harassing settlers, according to rumors; every night they kindled camp fires within the borders of the Territory, scaring people.  Then a death was reported at a crossing up river from Pacquette’s ferry (men found arrows had killed the victim). 

It was time for action.

The Dakotian, the “official newspaper of the Territory,” called for good men to stay calm.  For there was no real evidence that local tribes had been responsible.  In a story, The Dakotian defended her native people:

In the summer of 1859,” The Dakotian wrote, “when only seven men resided in Yankton, there were over 2,000 Indians encamped on the present town site, dancing and singing and feasting over the presents they had just received from the steamer Carrier on her way to ther (sic) new agency.  No one was frightened or injured in the midst of this imposing array of red men, while to-day, were a dozen Indians to appear in our village, the inhabitants would run frantic with excitement.

“What has caused this change?  Have the Indians of Dakota committed any murders upon our white citizens?  Not one that we can prove against them.”

In is hard to understand, and The Dakotian’s efforts stand out like a beacon.  According to an online posting by Judi and Richard Schiller, many Native Americas, even before the Dakota War, tried to get along with their new neighbors, but the native people were starving, even though Reservation warehouses were stuffed with food.  Some leaders, such as Inkpaduta, refused the handouts.  He and his men became murderers instead, most notably during the Spirit Lake Massacre in Iowa.

In opposing views, the worry came across loud and clear:

“The recent attack upriver at Greenway’s ferry, has aroused afresh the feeling of insecurity,” a story about "Military protection for Dakota," said in the Sioux City Register, “and excited many queries as to the real object of the expedition.”   

The correspondent wanted to know what the troops were doing hanging out at the Big Sioux River, and why they couldn’t fan out and do something.  He said: “We shall be content to await with patience, but not without anxious solicitude, the development of the plan for the practical operations of our Northwestern army.”

The historical debate over the necessity of the Expedition is mixed.  Depending on the telling, the soldiers over at the Big Sioux were either chasing renegades, or harassing innocents.  Even the newspapers of the day couldn’t decide, but fear won the day anyway.

In a letter to the editor at the Sioux City Register in May of 1863, a writer asks:

“Mr. Editor, how would some of your good people feel to ride through our Territory and perceive here and there a little girl pale with sleepless nights and daily fear, following her father in the furrow carrying a heavy musket for his immediate use in case of danger? …

“Sir, there is a wrong in all this, and where does it lie?  If Gen. Cook has been ordered to concentrate all his troops at Sioux City until he is ready to march them straight through the Territory to the British line, then we say he is right in obeying orders.

“But if our government has become more prone to speculation than justice; more deaf to the cries of her people than her politicians; if she is unable to hold a Territory which she has purchased for a million and a half of dollars and opened to settlement and invited emigrants only to be butchered by a lawless band of Indians; if this be the drift and purpose of our Republic, then we say the sooner she sink to the gulf of destruction the better for the people.”

Thus came the Battle of Whitestone Hill.  Below is a depiction, and can be seen on Wikipedia.  It shows a reporter's drawing from Harper's October 1863 issue, according to the citation.2   It is published here in accordance with  Creative Commons  legal code.  (To see in more detail click on
the photo.)

On September 3, 1863, Brigadier General Alfred Sully, who had relieved Gen Cook, fought the Yanktonai, Santee, and Teton (Lakota) Sioux in the Battle of Whitestone Hill.  According to Wikipedia, the battle was the culmination of operations against the Sioux Indians in Dakota Territory in 1863. Sully attacked the village, and killed, wounded, or captured an estimated 300 to 400 Sioux, including women and children, at a cost of about 60 casualties.

After the battle, the native camp was completely deserted, and Sully ordered the property abandoned in the camp to be burned. This included 300 tepees and 400,000 to 500,000 pounds of dried buffalo meat, the winter supplies of the Indians and the product of 1,000 butchered buffalo. 3 

Wikipedia said Sully’s casualties were approximately 22 killed and 38 wounded. Some probably resulted from friendly fire, the site said, but no reliable counting of the Sioux killed and wounded were available.   

Of those not killed, 156 were captured.

Native American reports called Whitestone Hill a "massacre," with Sully attacking a peaceful camp and killing a large number of women and children.  One of Sully's interpreters, Samuel J. Brown, a mixed-blood Sioux, said "it was a perfect massacre" and lamentable to hear how those women and children were massacred.

Still, Sully had long demonstrated concern for the Indians and had a spotless record of honor and integrity.  For many, the substantial casualties of the soldiers demonstrated that Whitestone Hill was a battle, not a massacre.

At, the view is this: “Sully traveled into Dakota Territory hoping to locate and punish the Santee Sioux who had fled after the Minnesota Uprising.  What he found instead were nearly 4,000 peaceful Indians camped at Whitestone Hill. They were Yanktonai, Hunkpatina, and some Isanti.

“The vast majority were not present nor did they participate in the events that had occurred in Minnesota in 1862," the website said. "Yet this mattered little to General Sully. His mission was to eliminate Indians, and if they were peaceful, it only made the job easier."

Back at Big R's in 1964, few (if any), knew about the soldiers or Whitestone Hill.  Most liked to drink beer and party (and many didn't like school much).  But history records the leaders of the Expedition knew at least one killer was camped at Whitestone, according to a comment posted on Inkpaduta was there.”

Still, there is something terribly sad (and wrong) in the destruction of a people’s way of life, no matter which side you’re on

And what did the people in Sioux City do after all the soldiers came back through the area, returning home? They went to to the public park in Riverside, according to the website,

"This part of the city was a major attraction for the region," the website said. "From the first amusement park (complete with a roller coaster), to country clubs, picnic grounds, baseball fields, racing tracks, and fairgrounds, Riverside had it all.

Except, of course, for 3.2 beer,  And, sadly, many friends and neighbors from the old days.

Children in the area heard about the "Council Oak," a huge oak tree in the park, and how it died.  For years the City had tried to save it. City dwellers, and children alike, marveled at the story about tribesmen, and the towns' earliest settlers, gathering there in peace. The part where soldiers went out and killed the children of the men who sat with strangers under a shade tree is not talked about much.

No surprise, really, but sad just the same.

Editor’s Note: The first draft of this story (unpublished) was written for the North Sioux City Times  in 1996. The Times now shares a website with several other publications in the area. 

1 At least for one, and several friends anyway.  
2 This image could not be found in a search of Harper's archives for October, 1863.  
3 This seemed an outrageous amount of meat, but the Schiller's on their webpage confirmed the figure. They said at   Whitestone Hill: A Place in History , "What may have been worse (than the killing) was the burning of 500,000 pounds of buffalo meat--the entire winter supply of meat for the Yanktonai and Hunkpatina tribes. To show the extent of their loss, it took a party of 100 men over two days to gather up the meat and burn it. It was reported that the melted tallow ran down the valley in a stream. And the destruction didn't stop there. The army also destroyed all the teepees, buffalo skins, blankets, utensils, and hatchets, virtually everything the Indians possessed. In the end, the loss was so severe, that it ended the plains life for the Yanktonais."